Germantown Meeting & Racial Justice: A Long Journey Continues

Worship and Ministry

Symbolically, the start of Germantown Meeting’s current efforts for racial justice can probably be identified as the moment in 2006 that the Meeting recovered the 1688 document against slavery. That document by local German Quakers was the first known statement of public opposition against slavery in the Western Hemisphere. The document now resides at Haverford College; a copy of it hangs in the Meeting House.

In 2008, as the prospect of an African American as President became seen as increasingly feasible, the Meeting’s Adult Class Committee began its exploration of race and racial justice with a series of personal histories about engagements in the civil rights movement. The Adult Class Committee determined that this broad topic would be the primary focus of its sessions during 2008-09. The personal stories set the stage for other explorations: a researched examination of the dynamics of a local interracial church; a look at the recent history of Germantown; a current analysis of the school system in Philadelphia; and a look at the intersection of race and class.

In the next cycle, the Adult Class paid extended attention to a study of Fit for Freedom But Not for Friendship,  history of the relations between African Americans and the Society of Friends. For most of the autumn and winter, the group looked in often painful detail at this complex story of many heroic efforts against slavery and its aftermath intertwined with narratives of later acquiescence to segregationist practices by a number of Friends and Friends institutions.

The study, while distressing at points and sobering always, did not discourage Adult Class participants. Quite the contrary. Attendance held steady and expanded at points during this process. The process encouraged further discussion and pathways to action on the part of the Meeting.

One result was the production in late spring, 2010, of the Declaration on Racial Justice, a summary statement of the aspirations and commitments of Meeting members concerning the struggle against racism. The Germantown Meeting endorsed the Declaration, which is available on the Meeting’s website. The Declaration was forwarded to and subsequently approved by the Philadelphia Quarter and is hoped to provide impetus for further action. Another result was the revival of what had been the Racial Concerns Committee, now retitled the Racial Justice Committee (RJC) with eight new members, including four members of the Adult Class Committee.

The RJC, a standing committee of the Meeting, has been meeting regularly since autumn, 2010. Since its reformation, the RJC has sponsored a community wide presentation by civil rights leader Julian Bond; offered a presentation on The Scottsboro Tragedy; presented a program on racial justice to the Philadelphia Quarter; organized presentations to the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting; and most recently has sponsored a forum on racial identity among young people.

The Adult Class Committee turned its attention to a study of  The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander. The book analyzes, with devastating effect, the phenomenon of mass incarceration. Mass incarceration, which has been fueled by a racist War on Drugs and stricter and more rigid sentencing policies, has meant that the United States imprisons more people than any country on earth, with a disproportionate number of them being people of color, and that mass incarceration, in practice, has become a present day version of the notorious Jim Crow system.

Based on those insights, the RJC along with the Peace and Social Concerns Committee sponsored a public forum at Germantown Meeting on criminal justice, with a keynote address by noted civil rights lawyer, David Rudovsky. The forum drew an enthusiastic, interracial audience of close to 75 people.

One result of the forum was the formation of the Working Group on Mass Incarceration as an open subcommittee of the RJC with a specific focus on the issue of mass incarceration. The Working Group, with regular attendance of six to 10 participants, has become an active part of Germantown Meeting. It has produced two widely distributed informational leaflets on mass incarceration, sponsored screenings of the locally produced film, Broken on All Sides; guided a prison visitation; and participated with local groups in demonstrations against state prison expansion and for the reallocation state funds to education.

pullIn the near future, the Working Group will continue to promote educational efforts including co-sponsoring another locally produced film, The Pull of Gravity, scheduled on April 26, on the challenges to ex-prisoners returning to civilian life. The Working Group is also planning a forum on the issue of solitary confinement.

In sum, this narrative is an accounting of a process of learning. It has been a very positive process, with seemingly each further step and action building upon an earlier step and action. There has been surprisingly little in expressions of frustrations (perhaps this is to come later) and there has been considerable patience. There have been few illusions about the difficulties of this issue; the historical studies have certainly helped remove many such illusions. There is no grand plan to be emulated here simply a call to patience and openness. But the circle has become larger, touching Friends in other meetings, as well as other faith based neighbors. Our journey continues.

Ed Nakawatase is the clerk of the Racial Justice Committee at Germantown Meeting.